MIT's Interactive Robogami lets you design and 3D-print origami-inspired robots

Robots are becoming ever more common around the world, but they're also becoming more and more complicated to make. 

So engineers at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence laboratory have developed a tool that lets anyone design a robot in minutes, and then 3D-print and assemble it in as little as four hours.

It's called Interactive Robogami, because it's heavily inspired by origami - the Japanese art of paper folding. 

"Designing robots usually requires expertise that only mechanical engineers and roboticists have," said Adriana Schulz, co-lead author on a paper describing the system. 

"What's exciting here is that we've created a tool that allows a casual user to design their own robot by giving them this expert knowledge."

Library of Bodies

The software combines simulations and interactive feedback with algorithms for design composition, so that users can make high-level decisions (how many wheels should it have) rather than low-level ones (exactly what position should those wheels go in).

The system includes a library of different bodies, wheels, legs and other peripherals, alongside different gaits. Most importantly, though, the system guarantees that what you build will work - preventing you from building a bot that's so top-heavy it falls over, for example.

Once designed, you can 3D-print it as flat faces that can then be connected at joints and folded into the final shape. The team says that this approach combines the best bits of both 2D (lightweight, fast) and 3D (complexity, rigidity) printing.

"By 3D-printing 2D patterns, we can leverage these advantages to develop strong, complex designs with lightweight materials," said Cynthia Sung, the other co-lead author.

Lowering the barrier

To test the system, the designers asked eight volunteers to try it out. They were given twenty minutes of training, then asked to perform two tasks - the first was the creation of a stable car design, the second was to design a trajectory for an existing robot to travel through an obstacle course.

The results of the trial showed that the print-and-fold method reduced printing time by 73 percent and the amount of material by 70% over a more traditional approach.

The team hopes that the tool will allow people to incorporate robots into their everyday lives. "You can quickly design a robot that you can print out, and that will help you do these tasks very quickly, easily, and cheaply," said Sung. 

"It's lowering the barrier to have everyone design and create their own robots."

Duncan Geere
Duncan Geere is TechRadar's science writer. Every day he finds the most interesting science news and explains why you should care. You can read more of his stories here, and you can find him on Twitter under the handle @duncangeere.